Less Invasive Beekeeping

WHY THE HONEY BEE IS DECLINING

To put the qualms of anthropomorphizing aside, the short answer (for the folks making chit chat): Bees are fed up with the way we treat the dirt and not gonna take it anymore! They are pissed!

Longer answer:

It's not CCD colony collapse distortion we are dealing with, it's PCD: People Collapse Disorder.
You can tell the world! Collapse Disorder is from having no interest in the foundation of our ecosystem. Rather, our history is a longstanding anthropocentric domination of the landscape. Science got shafted. We all did! This sucks! Everything is this illusion of control. The goals of our technologies are not conducive to the well-being of our species or life on the planet but founded on the phony idea of profit as the only success in life.

Land is simple because it is just everything out there. We try to make it complex by being just one thing. It's a cultural definition of “food” or “lawn.” The time to keep it as such is money. The acknowledgement of our surroundings wastes time. Be afraid. Are you really gonna sell me "Sterility is the answer?" Something mediocre that provides income right now? We don't know anything. Every action is a futile effort. coumaphos foomafoss. Fight the mite and say goodnight! Protect the bees and buzz with ease. These emergency, section 18, under-the-EPA nerve agents now lace most beeswax in the country and shorten bee life spans - what about the microbes? - while the targeted varroa mite enjoys its quickly-adapted, chemical-resistant genetics. I’ve seen resistant mites crawling merrily on the treatment strips! jitterbuggin out. Our most “advanced” science now a national catastrophe, and somebody made money. And, you know, somebody stayed in business without ever using it. It's quicksand, dawg. I'm just jaded because before I knew, I handled a lot of coumaphos with my bare hands while working in commercial bee outfits.

What is an experiment with so many unforeseen variables? We have infinite variables in the hive - I lost the citation for that. How can you pin down a house, a car, or a bee hive as objects when everything is just a process of patterns, decay and renewal? To assign additional value to these things is going against their nature. Is anyone insulted? Our interference is demeaning to the eons-old shared genetic wisdom that has evolved its own niche in our world. It is demeaning to us, who apparently more than any other species have the capability of altering environments, either in support of or against biodiversity. We cannot act on a false knowledge and expect living things to flourish without artificial crutches. It's a system. A boat with a hole in the foundational level. We are sinking more with each new attempt to sustain it. There are bees out there who are learning to swim.

Our Lack of Connection:

Lack of beekeepers, young people interested in apiculture and farming in general
Inhibitive costs of starting beehives

Government, our USDA bee labs, and private university research, sponsored and controlled by agrichemical companies made rich, lately, by ubiquitous, unchecked neonicotinoids – farmers AND HOMEOWNERS using imidacloprid and other systemics in products like Gaucho and Merit - section 18 chemicals unregulated by the EPA, shown to compromise the insect nervous system but used in the US anyway! Now more popular than Round Up.

Generational knowledge gaps in stewarding bees and subsistence lifestyle. In 2008 the USDA announced that by 2012 the U.S. will be importing at least 40% of its produce, mostly from China.

Lack of forage. What’s going on here? Corn corn corn! Corn, cotton, and soy. The 3 most invasive plants in the country.

Lack of biodiversity – poor nutrition for bees from monoculture farming- demands of moving hives

Lack of genetic diversity- a hundred years of pushing for “better bees,” artificial breeding

Oversized bees, overused comb

Mites, pests, fungi, bacterium – often blamed as the problem, though are symptoms of an already compromised immunity, or what some call stress. The industry takes a “nuc the enemy” approach strengthening the mite genetic makeup - no trust in the bees ability to cope, no balance allowed to evolve – poisons used inside the hive showing fatal residuals and microbial imbalances. you all know that thymol makes the bee's wax cuticle more permeable to toxins, right?

Feelings of panic/chaos. Hurry and worry sound the same and mean to same thing.

The Revolution is overdue and the late fees are self-replicating. Where do we find ourselves in 2009? Happy? Bitter? In the past few generations we have nearly lost all semblance of living off our cooperative land, the ability to find joy in what we already have, and the courage to slow down, appreciate, and aid the natural cycles. It’s OK. Rather than the competitive isolation and egotism that drives our capitalist system now we must reapply ourselves to diversity, community, and energy. Resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die!

COMMERCIAL BEEKEEPERS ARE NOT THE ENEMY.

Pointing the finger never helps dig up and boil the problem, be it among our families, circles of friends, or our governmental relations and how we think our justice system works. Damning a small manifestation of the ills brought about by our economic system does not create change. Change is positive and resets things to let them grow. It starts immediately… wait, it has already started.

No one wants to see bees die, especially those that rely on them for their livelihood. Migratory pollinators, queen breeders, honey packers, and others that make their living from bees are doing all they can to keep hives alive in a system of land management that poisons and malnourishes our bees. Because of the diligent work and innovative methods in the beekeeping industry, we still have food on our tables in this country. But it is too much for us, the bees, and the atmosphere.

The beekeeping industry is folding before our eyes, starting long before CCD came into the picture.

Our entire system of food production and distribution, the way we live in cities, what our generation has relied on and not questioned, are about to be turned upside down. The courage now is in acting on a new vision. The future will see many people growing their own food and working to help each other be caretakers of the landscape and create diversity. Clean water falls from the sky, our most valuable energy is stored in our own bodies, and one glorious solution rises in the east every morning… on a bee hive in every backyard. This is yippie hippie stuff. For the right now: more hives than televisions. That’s our goal at Anarchy Apiaries.

Many of my friends and I believe we are now at the next cataclysm for our species. That quick leap of evolution that happens everyso often millenia. It staggers along and doesn’t change much for thousands of years, sometimes millennia, until suddenly, WHAM, major events redefine the relationships on the planet. We fondly refer to this as “the sh*t hitting the fan,” a familial phrase that strengthens our bonds. This could occur through population crash brought on by famine, disease, ecological disaster, ice age, or nuclear war/fallout, though our work with the natural world leads us to one optimistic, ultimate solution: our AGREEMENT. When we agree, our divisions dissolve and we become free. The whole “survival of the fittest” dogma is a point of view founded on animosity, competition, and hatred that still permeates our social structure. Even Darwin didn’t like the way it was going. Our world is a Survival of the Kindest. To redefine what it means to be human in the next phase, we will build a world with love and trust for each other and all life. This is not a hippie-dream of rainbows and flowers but an obligatory call to action, to take down hierarchical power structures and free the planet.

We are not alone. We need only look to the precedents of symbiosis already in our world and release them from exploitative control. Bees and flowering plants have been dancing together for 100 million years. The bees can guide us to a new paradigm. To be a natural bee-steward in this way is truly carrying a torch.

After years spent in honey bee death camps (despite the honest and dishonest efforts of so many good people), I have seen bees thrive again by abandoning the mechanizations thought to make beekeeping more “profitable” at the cost of the bees’ long term health. Gurus in natural beekeeping have laid the groundwork to reverse these trends. Do I claim my bees are survivors? Usually most survive, yes. Do I claim they are productive? Hey, man, my bees don't work for you, me, or anybody. They are bees. When times are good, like Hudson Valley NY in 2010, they do really well.

SMALL CELL BEEKEEPING (hey, do these come in my size?)
Dee and Ed Lusby in Arizona were the first to promote a smaller, closer-to-natural cell size comb. As far as we know, the Lusby's are the only commercial scale beekeepers who never treated their bees for varroa mites. A lot of honey is made out there in the desert.
Dee started the yahoo organic beekeepers newsgroup and hosts the National Organic Beekeeping Conference in February in Arizona. Her writing can be found in the POV section of beesource.com.
For over 100 years the beekeeping industry has been oversizing bees, typical capital-driven thinking “bigger is better,” bigger bees make more honey. It was only a matter of time before an opportunist arrived that really took advantage of an oversized bee. That pest is apparently the varroa mite.

I discovered that bees, when shook from “standard” beehive comb into an empty box with no hexagon-ridged foundations, will build a slightly smaller size wax cell than they had been forced to previously. Once a generation of bees hatches from that smaller sized comb and is shook again into an empty box, they construct an even smaller cell for their broodnest core. By allowing each generation of bees to draw its own comb, the width of the cells in the core brood area shrinks and seems to stabilize after 6 to 7 generations at a much smaller size than the ubiquitous industry standard. Once this cell size is reached, the bees are able to keep varroa mites below life-threatening levels and secondary diseases are less frequent, perhaps do to less stress. I will not offer you any data on this other than my own observations. More so, from what I've seen, the hive’s morale is off the charts, incomparable to large cell hives. Today, smaller sized (4.9 mm) foundation is available from bee supply companies, as well as intermediary steps (5.1 mm), so often the regression can be completed in two actions of having the bees draw all new combs. This is still difficult to complete in a single year, especially up north. An all-plastic fully drawn smaller cell comb, with plastic cell walls, called Honey Super Cell can “instantly” downsize the bees. I hear many bees often will use mann lake pf-120s, which are smaller cell size. Then once a generation of smaller bees hatches, this plastic can be removed and the bees allowed to draw wax again. (They hate plastic.) Caught swarms are already on their way and are not at an advantage being shaken onto more than one established comb. The small cell camp figures, at the time of varroa mite introduction, most wild hives were first generation swarms from domestic hives and not fully regressed to a natural cell size. Thus we saw most feral hives disappear when varroa came. They are slowly coming back. Some never died. I beelieve in my heart. Some bees cannot be killed.

This past summer when the oldest intact beehives (3000 years old) ever discovered were exhumed in Israel and still had comb in them, what was the cell size? Did anyone look at the cell size in eastern Russia when the USDA discovered that the honey bees there were thriving in the presence of varroa? Of course the imported Russian queens were introduced right onto 5.4 mm comb.

Is all this cell-size stuff true? I don't know. Do I count mites in my hives? No. I don't care.

Small cell beekeeping is not a silver bullet. Studies have argued that smaller comb does not reduce mite counts, but this kind of beekeeping is not about getting lower mite counts or eradicating the “enemy” but a means of alleviating stress on bees to let them find their own balance after a period of healing. This is a more holistic beekeeping. As my bees became stable on smaller size comb, my life changed. Suddenly one frame of brood hatched out twice as many bees as I expected. Queens laid better patterns and faster. The hives seemed inspired in a way I had never seen in my six years of commercial beekeeping. After years of seeing struggle, death, and darkness in the bee industry, now I don’t worry about anything anymore.
I also see plenty of large cell hives in small operations thriving without treatments. I often believe that a hive gets sick only after prolongued broodrearing - from swarm prevention and stimulative feeding. Don't blame the beekeepers. In most cases, their hands are tied.

TOP BAR HIVES

Once my hives were established on small cell comb, I stopped using foundation. Less mechanization, labor, and energy while stepping aside to let the bees do what only they know best. After all, they’ve been using the social system for 80 million years. I used 3-frame nucs (baby hives) and have the bees draw new comb from scratch in between two drawn frames. These small hives want to draw mostly worker comb to establish a field force, and they do so perfectly often having cell sizes down to 4.7 mm, and I think smaller, here in New York state. I will never buy foundation again. This works for me, maybe not for you.

I looked for a more efficient bee house – one that takes less energy and materials to build but can still allow for inspections. The history of top bar hives predates the modern commercial model by untold thousands of years. The Langstroth hive we use today was popularized during the Industrial Revolution, when beekeeping was becoming a profitable business and needed to be standardized for suppliers to create monopoly. Suddenly, the box hive was in every corner of the world. Also as suddenly, new diseases appeared like foul brood, sac brood, nosema, chalk brood... Combs were being spun and saved every year and harboring pathogens. Bees were being shared and shuffled around the country and spreading disease. The swarming instinct was and still is suppressed. Major die-offs began to occur immediately, and have continued in about every decade since, the latest being called CCD. Even though the manipulation of movable combs brought about these new diseases, the industry declared war on feral bees and the old-school, “unscientific” beekeeping as dark pools of disease. Every state passed laws banning fixed comb hives that don’t allow easy inspection – the homemade skeps and gums – further locking beekeepers into the new industrial model. With the passing of a generation, all other types of bee houses and methods were forgotten.

To purchase a complete hive today with bees and the necessary gear, costs can range up to $400. The hive kits come complete with plastic, oversized foundation and a line of chemical treatments and gadgets to hopefully keep the bees alive. In redesigning my beekeeping, I found top bar hives an affordable and easy-to-manage system.

Are bees in a top bar hive healthier?
I observe that the bees are less anxious and grow as fast as or faster than Langstroth hives. However, a comparison in survival must make note of a different kind of management. In changing the way I built the boxes, I also changed the way I manage the hives. In the core brood nest – the front half to two-thirds of the hive, I do not interchange or space out comb. The bees follow their own cycles, design their own comb, and raise their own queens, processes that most Langstroth beekeepers are trying to control. However, they fight with money, and I fight with time. They will run out of money before I run out of time. (I stole that from Utah Phillips.)

Keeping top bar hives, and everything I strive for, is about the irreducible minimum. All you need to work this hive is a means for collecting honey, though a veil is good to have around as well as a means of blowing smoke on the bees every once in a while. The system goes against the grain of an industry burdened with inventions. Beekeepers are certainly a creative lot, but creativity also lies in simplicity and appreciating functionality. Rather than solutions depending on action where you are, think of restarting and NOT doing this, CULLING out this unnecessary step. Slow down and interfere less, and problems that arise will most likely take care of themselves with time. A honey flow is just around the corner. Our mental calamity is one of this Age of Alienation’s greatest achievements.

A top bar hive requires NONE of the following:

• A lot of money.
• Protective gear (Optional. If you want to avoid stings, do not keep bees. I never wear a veil with my 200 hives. Ever. Stings are rare once you learn how to move like fluid. The bees are excellent teachers. Getting stung is a blessing.)
• Smoker (a smudge works just as well). Bees allowed to build their own comb are a more cohesive family, less stressed, and calmer. The method of going one bar at a time causes little disturbance.

• Hive tool (a knife, sharp antler or rock is fine)
• Extractor (a waste of time, finances, and energy)
• Chemical miticides, antibiotics (don’t get me started on this again)
• Artificial sugar/protein feed (bees benefit from feed and this is your choice. In some locations the bees might need feed in a dearth until they are adapted. When you get your first crop of honey, save some combs for emergencies)
• A storage facility. No storage means no trouble with wax moths and no transmitting foulbrood or possibly nosema ceranae and CCD next year.
• A strong back. No heavy boxes to lift. Brood is easily inspected at any time.
• College degree in woodworking. These can be built with just a few saw cuts and screws.
• Bee friendly neighbors. It looks like a nice planter, not those stacked, square harbingers of pain our society has been trained to fear. This is an ideal hive for any backyard or rooftop anywhere.
• Your own land. Folks love bees these days. Some just might not know it yet. Get out there and show them!